It happened today - July 6, 2016
On this date in history, July 6, Thomas More wasn’t executed at the Tower of London in 1535. As many other people weren’t; we just visited the place and there’s a surprisingly short, if impressive, list of people who lost their heads within its walls including three queens. But inasmuch as More was executed nearby at Tower Hill on that day, it’s rather splitting hairs while they lie on necks to quibble about the location. When Henry VIII wanted you gone, you generally went.
I don’t like that man. I really don’t. He trumped up various charges against More and eventually got him for treason, before a jury doubtless informed in advance of what would happen to them if they were so foolish as to acquit. Instead they convicted him in 15 minutes. But More’s real crime was denying that Henry was the Pope of England. And without being Roman Catholic I feel that More had a point. Nobody had noticed that the King of England was head of the Church in the preceding 800 years. And if Henry’s first wife had had a son, he wouldn’t have noticed it himself. I really think he was an awful person on all sorts of counts.
Including that we’ve visited quite a few other places in England that Henry’s thugs destroyed as part of this business of making himself head of the church so he could dump his first wife for the one he then executed. The first one, I mean. These include Evesham Abbey, where bits of Simon de Montfort are buried (see our Magna Carta documentary for details). You’d think a man proud of being “Defender of the Faith” would hesitate to plunder and trash a place of worship that had stood, and grown, for well over 800 years.
You’d also think a man sworn to uphold the law would on dissolving various charitable foundations return the land and assets to those who had contributed them or to their heirs, as the law requires, instead of pocketing them himself. At least, you’d think so if you hadn’t met Henry. If you had, you’d probably find your collar suddenly feeling very tight on all sorts of occasions.
Then there’s Winchester Cathedral, a lovely building that houses the bones of various very long gone monarchs including Egbert of Wessex, Alfred the Great’s grandfather, Aethelwulf of Wessex, Alfred’s father, and Canute, along with Canute’s wife Emma of Normandy who had earlier been married to Aethelred the Unready, along with Eadred, Eadwig and some Johnny-come-latelies like William II. But they are “Displaced in mortuary chests” because they were buried in an extensive complex of monasteries that, again, Henry’s bullies smashed up and knocked down just because.
Even if you hate Rome, surely the persistence of worship in a place over eight centuries commands a certain respect for the impulse toward the transcendent in humans that they represent even if you think the people there got bits of the dogma wrong. And when a king’s remains have been at peace in such a place for more than half a millennium, especially one generally respected like Eadred, it seems vain and vulgar, if not sacrilegious, to knock down his mausoleum and disturb his bones.
At least it does to me. Henry VIII felt very differently. Far from standing in awe of tradition, and respecting the long devotion such places represented almost from the dawn of post-Roman Christianity in Britain, and the courage and principle of those who stood up for a law higher than that of mere mortals, Henry had them knocked down just as he had More killed, and the shrine and bones of Thomas a Becket destroyed, lest men should remember another man been martyred four centuries earlier for defying another King Henry in the name of the independence of the church, a.k.a. freedom of religion.
It should have been Henry VIII getting the axe on July 6, not More. It really should have.